The world of prison literature of the last half century has been in the literarily laudable vein of Ethridge Knight. As embraced by the contemporary mainstream, publishers have tried to capture both the twisted glamor and tamed danger of the criminal writer. We can add to that the desire to expose the injustices of the "justice" system and a genuine desire to give voice to the otherwise unheard. But a penchant for sensationalism is, of course, also in play, the desire by otherwise staid publishing houses to provide something thrilling in the midst of their usual fare of formulaic blockbusters, white/male "fine" literature on the quiet angst of white/male writers, and the white/female works on why that is all just so wrong.
Take for example, Ticklish Brewster's (in)famous book of poetry, The Noose Rules, in which he recounts
[t]hat night in Charleston, NC,
in the room was just you, just me;
the knife shone in the lady night
and I took home your lady life. (5-8)
A cracking admission, and not without its legal implications, Brewster is already on record confessing his crime, serving a 25 year manslaughter sentence after a plea deal. His admission is also an amelioration if not a sanctification for the publisher. This is not true crime, not an episode of Dateline Saturday Mystery; this is fine literature, the deep reflection of a human who has killed.
And that is why Brass Arroyo's new anthology Philosophical Robservations is notable. The title's obvious pun is enough of a change in form for the otherwise conventional fine art publisher. Inside, however, we see a whole new set of pieces, some looking like traditional poems, some like short fiction, but as many memes, raps, and fiber arts. All come from a particularly, and often peculiarly, philosophical place, often with a tinge of dark humor on all aspects of the criminal life. Randal Wayne Doocy writes
Always case the joint: know when
windows raise and shut,
just in case the DA's case
is open, and shut. (34-7)
Philosophical Robservations creates a whole new subcategory of prison writing, breaking from the high seriousness of the past and embracing a highbrow humor of reconsideration. Its contents challenge us to think about the social world of the prisoner, not just the prisoner's inner life. Once, the litmus test of prison literature was a certain confessional mode, a move toward contrition, a mind for reform. Readers looking for criminal redemption should look elsewhere. In Philosophical Robservations the mode is distinctly unapologetic. A meme by Robert Wayne Ramos shows the way the collection faces the realities of criminal life with no apologies. The text reads, simply, "employee morale," and it shows a dark-skinned woman with a black eye; she is dressed in short-shorts, a crop-top, and fishnet stockings, smoking a crack pipe through her tears.
While we associate prison writing with men, and this anthology is still largely made up of the work of male writers, Rosario is not unmindful of gender diversity. For example, Shalika Wayne Johnson's short story "Payback" features this scene, in which the lead character, Shay, brutally flogs her pimp after he drinks and drugs himself "into a stupor. Shay wound one end of the electrical cord around her hand and, whipping it above her head, brought the plug end down on his face and chest. When he finally awoke, he was unrecognizable—eyes puffed, lips clotted with blood, chunks of his cheek splattered on his shirt" (44). She would name the child he had sired with her "Karma," and as the story continues, we find that karma is, indeed, a total bitch.
Much of Philosophical Robservations is devoted to works that postulate a fictional world in which the authors had gotten away with it, a "what if" universe that obviously does not comport with reality. Steven Wayne Nugent's contribution appears at first to be an idyll. Set on a beach in Mexico, a verse narrative slowly unfolds:
[T]his was the good life,
where all the hard
work pays off; the
slightly in his favor,
the years spent smoothing
wrinkles in profit and
loss. It's only
if the money
is missed. (48-58)
One might even surmise that Nugent's poem could have been penned by a Wall Street executive. And maybe that is the point. Philosophical Robservations' editor, the controversial Mary Wayne Rosario, brought us Dance Hamloaf in 2007, an anthology juxtaposing the processes and practices of the meat-packing industry with those of the classical ballet. Rosario is also responsible for unearthing Versace Wayne Varma's Beth's Last Rip-Off, a tell-all of a pseudonymous Hollywood script doctor whose previous life had been spent writing scripts for South-Asian phone scams.
Perhaps, though, there is redemption in Philosophical Robservations, simply not at the individual level: these writers see no need for remorse and little sense that their wrongdoing is any more than a lifestyle choice. But here we can see similarities between how they live and that which the rest of us find entertaining. Here are Michael Wayne Frasey's observations on the methamphetamine trade in his home town:
We all just sought the ice throne,
and a little bloodletting
was justified—the keys
to the seven counties' kingdom,
and I sang while I gunned
down my rival
on his nuptial day;
it's a nice day for a
red wedding. (227-36)
Even then, it might all be a coincidence, contemporary writers writing about contemporary themes. How could they not? Criminals exist at the same cultural moment we do, and so there is no reason to believe they would be different in terms of their reference points and obsessions. Criminality is what these writers know, and so we should perhaps should not be surprised by Alexis Wayne Thompson's contention that
if you think it's hard out there
for a pimp, try pimpin'
from prison, dawg. It ain't
that Law gon' kill you; it's
The economics of all this are inexorable, for the prisoners, and for the publishing house, Brass Arroyo. The Game is, in the end, about profit and loss, gains made or not, opportunities taken or lost. Where there is poverty and few chances to make a living legitimately, there will be illegality. For Brass Arroyo, there is a chance to repackage fine art writing to a generation raised not on The New Yorker and Phillip Roth but on social media and Breaking Bad. When there are no longer protected spaces or places for members of polite society to be polite together, when "safe space" means only safe for me and not safe for others, there really seems to be, from a publisher's perspective, no other choice.
The previous tradition of prison literature might have relied upon a disingenuous notion of respectability. Now, however, even the pretense toward respectability signals social irrelevancy and economic death.
Brewster, Ticklish. The Noose Rules. Loutredge, 1988.
Doocy, Randall Wayne. "Up/Late." Rosario, p. 98.
Frasey, Michael Wayne. "The Ice House." Rosario, pp. 13-17.
Johnson, Shalika Wayne. "Payback." Rosario, pp. 39-60.
Nugent, Steven Wayne. Rosario, pp. 101-2.
Ramos, Robert Wayne. "employee morale." Rosario, p. 73.
Rosario, Mary Wayne, editor. Philosophical Robservations. Brass Arroyo, 2020.
Thompson, Alexis Wayne. "Pimpmaster Jones and the Hi-Lyfe Metronome." Rosario, p. 9-10.